American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

  I asked to watch the scene again. And then again. I was stalling, and they knew I was stalling. No matter how many times we’d been over and through “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I still struggled with it.

  “Ready,” I said now.

  Four lines into it, the strangest thing happened—I started to shake. I ignored it at first, but then I was crying. Just like a baby. I could barely get the words out, much less remember everything I was supposed to remember about controlling my breath and rounding my vowels. I shook and I cried, and I kept singing, the words spilling out in a mad, wet jumble, until suddenly Rosie was there, easing me down onto the platform. He snapped the microphone off so that the men in the monitor booth couldn’t hear, and then he eased himself down beside me. “Tell me.”

  “It’s this song.” I was being ridiculous, and I knew it, which only made me feel worse. “Not the song itself, but the music. All these high notes. And the way I’m expected to sing it, as if I’m Jeanette MacDonald or Kathryn Grayson.”

  Rosie said, “People make the common mistake of singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in the key it’s written in, as if there’s no other choice, but what they don’t understand is that you can choose your own key. You just have to find it.” He pushed his sleeves up over his elbows and said, “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to concentrate on breathing. Breath is the most important thing. It’s your foundation. You need to be able to control your soft palate and tongue to create more space in your mouth.” He stood and rested his hand on his stomach. He pointed at my stomach. “Take a deep breath. Now let it out. Don’t lift your shoulders and suck in your stomach. I want you to breathe naturally, as if you’re sleeping.” He took off his glasses, set them on the music stand, and then lay right down on the floor. He stretched out flat, stomach rising like a pitcher’s mound, eyes to the ceiling.

  I lay down a foot or two away in the same position.

  “I want you to focus on your breath, but don’t get self-conscious about it. Breathe as deeply as you can and then let it out slowly with an ‘S’ sound.” He demonstrated, breathing in and then out, hissing like a snake.

  I closed my eyes and filled my lungs and then sent the air out, as slow as I could. Something hard flopped onto my stomach and I opened my eyes again—a book. Rosie said, “I want you to watch that book going up when you breathe in and down when you breathe out.”

  He sat on the platform, arms resting on knees, hands clasped, hunched forward, eyes on the book. Now and then he barked, “Relax,” or “You’re thinking too much,” or “Feel, don’t think.”

  Easy for you to say, I thought to myself. My breath was uneven and raggedy. The more I concentrated, the more strained it became.

  “Close your eyes.”

  I closed my eyes. I let my mind drift where it wanted. I thought of the songs I had to sing, of all the songs I’d ever sung. I heard the words of my favorite hymn, Mama’s favorite hymn, and let myself follow the notes like they were a road laid out before me. Finally, I stopped thinking and started feeling the air come in and go out, as the book moved up and down. It became a perfect rhythm. In, out, up, down. In, out, up, down.

  The next time through, I didn’t think. I breathed. Afterward, I had no idea whether I’d nailed it or not.

  But I’m learning, I thought. I’m learning.

  Early Christmas morning, Mudge called me downstairs. Because she never got up before ten on the days she wasn’t working, I came running, worried something was wrong. She waited near the front door, hair pulled back, face bare of makeup, still in her blue silk pajamas. She said, “I thought you were going to sleep all day.”

  “It’s not even seven.”

  “Well your present was just delivered, and I couldn’t wait any longer.” She opened the door and went on out. Before I could follow her, she said, “It’s chilly, Hartsie. Go up to my room and get us some sweaters while I guard the door. And don’t try to peek out the window.”

  Upstairs, I sorted through rack after rack in Mudge’s ocean of a closet before I found two button-up sweaters on one of her shelves. As I pulled them out, something fell onto the floor. I bent to pick up the thing that had fallen, which was actually a cloth box, no bigger than a biscuit tin. The lid had opened and the contents had spilled—various pins and medals and costume jewelry. Several of the pins had the same design, a half moon and stars, a lily, and a bird in flight, all intertwined. I scooped everything up and put the box back on the shelf.

  Outside, even with the sweater, I shivered in the cool morning air. Mudge stood, hands on hips, beaming at the driveway and the dandelion-gold Oldsmobile that was parked there. “It has Hydra-Matic drive, powermatic shifting, and fashion-tone interior, and it’s brand-new, even newer than mine. I remembered you telling me about that yellow truck of yours, so I had them paint it. I have to say I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I think it looks pretty good like this.” She walked up and down, patting the hood, opening the doors.

  “I don’t understand. . . .” The yellow was almost the same yellow as my truck, just brighter, shinier.

  She held up the key. “Merry Christmas, Hartsie.” She handed it to me. “Now let’s take it for a spin.” She ran around the car and climbed into the passenger’s seat.

  I slid behind the wheel, still dazed, still speechless. “Mudge, it’s too much. You shouldn’t have done this. The present I got for you is so small.”

  “If you don’t start it up, I will.”

  I turned the key and the engine roared to life as if the car was ready to go, ready to take us wherever we wanted. The leather smelled brand-new. I suddenly had a pang for that old yellow truck that had taken me all over the mountains and to Nashville. It now sat parked behind Sweet Fern’s house at home on Fair Mountain.

  I backed carefully down the drive, and once we were on the street I said, “Where should we go?”

  “Anywhere! And everywhere. Let’s just drive.”

  We drove all over the city, windows rolled down, from Beverly Hills to Brentwood to the Pacific Palisades to the road that hugged the coastline. The morning started off cool and damp, but by nine thirty the clouds had burned off, leaving only sunshine. We drove as far as we could for as long as we could, both of us in our bare feet and pajamas, and then we pointed that beautiful yellow Oldsmobile back toward Beverly Hills.

  We had a party that night, and the last guest left at three in the morning. I was just turning off my light when I heard the sound of water coming from the bathroom down the hall. Underneath it, very faint, I thought I heard someone crying. I pulled on my robe and knocked on the door.

  Inside the bathroom, Mudge sat on the tile, knees tucked under her chin. She’d either washed or cried the makeup off. The water in the sink was still running.

  I sat down beside her. “Nigel?”


  I held something out to her, wrapped in paper and a red ribbon.

  “What’s this?”

  “Your Christmas present.”

  She sat up straighter, sniffling, tearing away the paper. She held up the gift—a little wooden carving of a girl, mouth open, hair long and wild, heart-shaped face, arms spread wide. “What is it? Is she . . . ?”

  “She’s flying. My friend back home made it for me from a very special tree, one that’s been through a lot but is still standing, even after the most terrible storms. He’s a wood-carver, but this is the only carving he’s ever made from that tree. He wanted to make one that nothing could break.”

  She sat for a long time without saying anything, and then she started to laugh and cry all at once. “This is the nicest gift I’ve ever gotten.” She leaned her head into mine and, holding on to the little figure, swept her back and forth through the air, making her fly.

  SHOOTING SCRIPT/Flyin’ Jenny: Star-Spangled Blonde/11-27-46


A peaceful blue sky. A single-engine open cockpit goes into a dive, hurtling toward the ground like a bullet.

  CLOSE-UP on the pilot, beautiful and blond, and now concentrating on bringing the plane level. 400 mph. 500 mph. She yanks back on the stick, ready to pull out, but at that moment the plane starts to shake, and suddenly the nose is engulfed in flames.

  Jenny loses her helmet first, then her goggles. She’s pressed against the hatch cover. Her flying suit is ripping to pieces. Her boots fly off. She jumps free, making herself count before pulling the rip cord. She drops through the clouds and lands in a clump of bushes.

  Where she emerges in seconds, having improvised a dress out of the parachute silk, hair smoothed, skirt swirling around her knees. She is barefoot. She consults her compass.



  With determination, she starts off in the direction of the airport.


  That plane didn’t catch fire on its own.

  Someone compromised the fuel. The question is — who?

  To give herself courage, she begins to sing “Facing the World Alone.”



  Engineer Swoop Lowe listens to Jenny skeptically as she tells him of the crash.


  The only thing I can figure is that someone added sugar to the fuel tank, but only a few of us had access.

  (as it dawns on her)

  Actually, you had access . . .

  Swoop Lowe attempts to shove Jenny into a whirling plane propeller. Jenny’s foot becomes caught between the steel cable and cylinder of the test stand, which keeps her anchored, and the saboteur falls into the propeller instead . . .













  On Friday, December 27, the studio sent two limousines to take us to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Mudge and Hal rode in the first one with their publicists, and I rode in the other with Bernie Hanser, Johnny Clay, and Butch.

  I wore an ivory gown with a white gardenia in my hair, a silk one because they weren’t in season. My brother sat between Butch and me, pointing out all the sights. He leaned forward, taking it in, while Butch sat back, gazing out the window without saying a word. Girl, you been on my mind. We hadn’t had a chance to talk, just the two of us, since the night at Lovejoy’s. But he was here, in a tuxedo, hair brushed back off his face, lean and sexy. It was the first time I’d seen him dressed up like this and I couldn’t stop looking at him.

  As we turned onto Hollywood Boulevard, I could see the klieg spotlights from blocks away. The sky above the Chinese Theatre glowed like it was on fire.

  The closer we got to the theater, the more shapes and shadows sharpened into view: the carved pagoda towers, the dragon across the front, silhouettes of smaller dragons on the copper roof, and two stone lions guarding the main entrance. The faces and waving hands of the crowd on the bleachers and on the sidewalks, roped off by a barricade. The flashing of cameras, like a lightning storm. I pinched my arm over and over with two gloved fingers. That same night, Home of the Brave, the most talked-about film of the past decade, was opening in seven other theaters around the country.

  Johnny Clay pulled something out of his pocket. Mudge’s flask. He held it up. “She thought you could use it tonight.”

  He took a swig and passed it to Butch, who gave it straight to me with a look at my brother. “Man, it’s like you were raised in a barn.”

  Johnny Clay said, “Don’t let all that finery fool you. That’s just Velva Jean under there.”

  I held the flask in my hand without drinking. “When did she give you this?”

  “Before we left. You were busy getting ready.”

  The limousine rolled to a stop. I could hear the crowds now, not just see them. They were cheering at the sight of each beloved movie star, each glittering person who appeared under the lights. Webster Hayes stalked up the red carpet, followed by Babe King and her mother. Louis B. Mayer and his wife and daughters, accompanied by Howard Strickling and his wife. Nigel Gray and Pia Palmer, his hand on the small of her back as they stopped to pose for the cameras. Everyone in Hollywood seemed to be there—including Sam Weldon with a redhead I didn’t recognize.

  Bernie said, “As soon as you see Hal and Barbara, get ready. We let them get a good head start, then Kit and—which one of you guys is Kit’s date?”

  Butch said, “I am.”

  “You and Kit will go. I want you to pause, wave, and head up the red carpet. Slowly enough so they can snap pictures. You can sign a few autographs, Kit, but don’t take too long getting to the entrance. There’ll be radio. Say a couple words, pose for another picture or two, and then give one last wave before you go inside. And, whatever you do, don’t forget to smile. Your brother will be right behind you, and I’ll be behind him.”

  I slid the flask into my purse as a roar went up from the crowd. Hal and Mudge were on the red carpet.

  When Bernie said go, Butch stepped out and offered me his hand. Together, we made our way up the carpet, my arm through his. Some of the stars lingered in the famous forecourt—I could see Billy Taub and Ophelia Lloyd, shimmering in silver. Hal and Mudge signed autographs and answered questions for the press, her silver wings gleaming on her gown. From the rope, Zed Zabel barked, “Does this mean the divorce is off? Are Nigel Gray and Pia Palmer reconciled? Is it true you’re campaigning to play Lady Catherine opposite him in Latimer?”

  Mudge’s smile froze. Mr. Strickling said, “Now, Zed, why don’t we talk about the picture? Or maybe you need to be reminded why we’re here?”

  Up ahead, I overheard Babe King answering questions about her mother, her pet rabbit, her love life, and her new nickname—Babe Fanning. “I don’t think it’s fair to either Barbara or me. I’m not trying to replace her. That was just an ugly rumor started by someone as a joke. . . .”

  I stood, smiling dumbly, blinded by the bright, bright lights, gripping Butch’s arm so tight I wondered if he had any feeling left in it.

  I smiled. I waved. But the fans had no idea who I was. The camera flashes slowed, as if to say, She doesn’t matter. We don’t care about her. Members of the press seemed bored. They were already talking about who they’d seen, who they’d gotten on film.

  Then the cameras started flashing again and I looked behind me to see who had arrived. Johnny Clay swaggered up the carpet. I watched as he signed autographs and shook hands, fans and reporters calling out to him. After he kissed her cheek, one girl swooned into a faint. I almost couldn’t blame them. In his tuxedo, waving and winking and grinning like a fool, he looked just like a movie star.

  A voice said in my ear, “No one will believe you’re a singer in that dress.” Sam Weldon stood at my elbow, cigarette in hand. In his tuxedo, he was as handsome as Nigel Gray. I didn’t see the redhead.

  “Did you misplace your date?”

  “It’s good to see you too.” He glanced at Butch, at my hand on his arm, and the light in his eyes dimmed a little. “Sorry. Manners have always been a challenge. Sam Weldon.”

  Butch shook his hand. “Butch Dawkins. You wrote the book.” Butch nodded at the theater and the enormous Home of the Brave sign that hung over the entrance, blazing like a furnace. “I haven’t read it yet, but I got real respect for what you do. People think writing’s easy, but it’s tougher than just about anything else.”

  “Thanks.” He looked at me, back at Butch, back at me, an
d the expression on his face—like someone had let the air out of him—made me feel guilty for some reason. “And I wanted to hate him. Good luck tonight, Pipes.”

  “Good luck to you, too.”

  “I don’t need luck. I need a complete mental examination.” The cameras popped, one, two, three, four, five.

  Zed Zabel called out, “What can you tell us about the picture, Weldon? Does it do justice to your book?”

  “Not in the least.”

  “You started as a newsman. You claim to deal in accuracy, adhering to history, respecting the truth, yet Betsy Ross wasn’t in the book, and now we hear she’s all but taken over the picture.”

  “It’s Hollywood. Haven’t you heard? There’s no place for accuracy or truth in this business.”

  “If you hate it so much, why are you here?”

  Sam flashed a smile as bright as the klieg lights. “The most noble cause of all—money.”

  Above the laughter, Zed Zabel said, “Think you’ll stick around?”

  “They may not want me to after tonight.”

  “Is it true you’ve been hired to adapt another one of your books?”

  “Sir, if I had a drink, I’d throw it in your face.”

  I pulled out Mudge’s flask and handed it to him, causing everyone to laugh. Sam unscrewed the cap, studied Zed, studied the flask, and then drank down the contents to applause.

  The stage was the largest I’d ever seen, the screen covered by heavy red velvet curtains, and for tonight, the heavy red velvet curtains were covered by an enormous American flag. There must have been two thousand people walking down the red-carpeted aisles, settling themselves elegantly in the red seats. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, ringed by dragons. Chinese lanterns glowed on the walls.

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